On their first day in office, newly elected members of the U.S. House of Representatives take an oath on the House floor — to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
But before his election as Speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan took another oath — this time to the so-called “Freedom Caucus,” a group of several dozen overwhelmingly white, conservative Congressmen from overwhelmingly white, conservative congressional districts.
Specifically, reports the National Review, the oath “extracts Ryan’s word that he will not bring up comprehensive immigration reform ‘so long as Barack Obama is president’ and, as speaker, even in the future, Ryan will not allow any immigration bill to reach the floor for a vote unless a ‘majority’ of GOP members support it.”
In short, in order to become the new speaker of the House, Ryan has vowed to block immigration reform from coming to a vote until January 2017 — at the earliest.
This is the second time Ryan has made a pledge on immigration reform. I remember the first: in 2014, Ryan called me at the Sojourners office, offering to help Christians pass comprehensive immigration reform. That led to meetings in Ryan’s office with key evangelical leaders about how to do that strategically, with Ryan telling us that the “evangelical factor” on immigration reform was something he had never seen before.
He promised us on several occasions that he would help bring immigration reform bills to the floor of the House. Many other Republicans promised the same thing to evangelical pastors who came to visit them from their districts.
I especially remember a day in July of that year, when three Catholic bishops representing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, two fellow evangelical leaders, and I met with Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. A bipartisan immigration reform bill had already passed in the Senate, and the Republican leaders promised us they would bring the issue to a vote in the House. We met with Ryan again, and he pledged to help.
But the Republican leadership failed to do that. They failed to keep their promise to Christian leaders, instead morally caving in to pressure from the strong anti-immigrant white rightwing base of their party.
In our private conversations with many Republicans — on the Hill and in their districts — they would freely admit the problems of racial fear and anger from that constituency. But the official party deference to racialized rightwing groups and districts closed the window on immigration reform in Congress.
President Obama — courageously, many of us believed — followed up with executive orders designed to at least relieve the threat of deportation from many immigrant families. While doing so he readily agreed that genuine reform would eventually take an act of Congress. But Republicans vilified the President for those orders, and they are still being stalled in courts.
Speaker Ryan reiterated this position on Nov. 1, saying on CBS’ Face the Nation, “I think it would be a ridiculous notion to try and work on an issue like [immigration] with a president we simply cannot trust on this issue.”
Asked whether he would work with future presidents on the issue, Ryan said his job now is to build and respect consensus among his Republican caucus — implying prospects for comprehensively fixing our broken immigration system will likely face a continued Republican block.
How ironic that Ryan talks about “trust,” because only two years ago the same leader said, “We do not want to have a society where we have different classes of people who cannot reach their American dream by not being a full citizen.”
Deep down, I believe Ryan knows immigration reform is good for families, our communities, and our economy. I believe that because he has told me and other Christian leaders that he believes that.
Now, he’s thrown that all away to become the new House speaker.
This resistance isn’t limited to Speaker Ryan. On Nov. 2, Rep. Steve King, a longtime opponent of immigration reform, circulated a bill to make protesting at the Capitol a deportable offense. According to the Huffington Post, the bill “would authorize U.S. Capitol Police to help enforce immigration laws…[with] the specific aim of targeting protesters…calling for amnesty.”
Just last week, I was in the Shenandoah Mountains with a few fellow Sojourners. We were telling stories around the campfire, recalling the “Pledge of Resistance” we helped organize in the 1980s in response to the threat of a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua.
That pledge said:
“We will resist with our minds, hearts, and bodies any intervention by the United States, directly or indirectly, in Nicaragua. We will call upon our churches, organizations, networks, communities, and friends to join us in such resistance, and we will begin to prepare others for it. Our faith compels us to respond: we are committed to an active nonviolence that confronts the forces of war and the structures of injustice. If such an intervention takes place we will respond. ...We pledge ourselves to work for peace and justice in Central America. ...May peace come to our minds, our hearts, our world."
Eighty thousand people signed that pledge promising to enter the offices of their members of Congress and refusing to leave until they were arrested if the United States invaded Nicaragua.
We later learned from inside intelligence that this pledge, and its credible capacity for action, helped prevent a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua.
Those words inspired us then, and they can inspire us now.
The time may be upon us to say that if the Capitol Police are ordered to arrest peaceful immigrant demonstrators, they will have to arrest thousands of the other Christians as well.
Let us make ourselves clear (and I trust that I speak for many other Christians in this regard): Immigration reform will be a voting issue for Christians across the theological spectrum, including evangelicals and pentecostals, Catholics and Protestants, in 2016. We will vote for and against candidates for office on every level — local, national, and the presidency itself — on whether they favor or oppose comprehensive immigration reform. The particular bills to accomplish that can vary, but Jesus’s instruction to welcome the stranger provides the moral principles that unite us in an urgent call to fix a broken and cruel immigration system.
And depending on the results of those elections, the time may be upon us to renew our pledges of resistance.
So here is a message for Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Steve King or any other politician who proposes to deport eleven million undocumented immigrants — thereby tearing them out of our nation, our lives, and our churches, and ripping their families apart: If a new president calls for massive deportation, some of us Christian leaders will call for massive civil disobedience. And thousands of Christians — Latino, Anglo, Asian, and African Americans — will join the protest to block those deportations.
We will do all that we can to disrupt the “management” of a political deportation plan counter to the gospel of Jesus Christ that calls us to “welcome the stranger” and reminds us that how we treat the stranger is how we treat Christ himself.
That is not a threat. It is a promise of what we will and can do.